Black Friday Special: 2013

The idea here was to follow up Thanksgiving's traditional Turkey Shoot, with its takedown of the year's most overrated records, with a selection of lesser-known, underappreciated albums. One thing I noticed from last year was that some critics had no real interest in searching out bad music, or perhaps in even writing negative reviews. I actually think that's the norm for critics: they get into writing about music because they've found music they think is worth writing about -- promoting, even. I know I never looked forward for Christgau's Turkey Shoots: mostly they confirm your suspicions, occasionally dashing hopes, once in a while provoking disagreement, while offering nothing more. So this seemed like the right way to balance out the negativity. And there seemed to be a certain serendipity to the timing: most stores are closed on Thanksgiving day, while the day after -- not sure why it's called Black Friday since it seems more purple to me -- is the nominal start of the annual Christmas consumption orgy.

And this started off promisingly, with Lucas Fagen proposing three records even I had never heard of -- I say "even" because I've been maintaining a metacritic file that tries to track everything any critic notices, over 6,000 records so far this year. And we did go on to attract a few critics who had bypassed the Turkey Shoots. But we still wound up shorter than the Turkey Shoot -- partly my fault, as I have lots of the sort of records I was hoping for but couldn't find the time to revisit them and expand my exceptionally cryptic reviews. And I'll have a long post tomorrow where I'll offer my own takes on some of yesterday's and today's records.

Thanks to all the contributors here, and also to Michael Tatum and Dan Weiss for their editing help and inspiration.


Balqees: Majnoun (Rotana)
Singing in her local dialect with the enunciated clarity of the educated upper-upper-middle-class, operating primarily in the international-ballad mode that dominates radio east of the Atlantic, Balqees Fathi is a Yemeni pop princess no more likely to embrace social consciousness than Taylor Swift. Simply by virtue of the big synthed-up production, however, this album is at once a conscious statement and a glorious disco sellout. Bending such ballads onto a cheesy, squiggly electrobeat, melding feverish guitar figures and those high tacky keyboards mimicking flutes or violins or any other instrument worth mimicking, she's turned lounge music into a stylized, exoticized variant on hooky bubblegum, an explicitly gaudy Westernization of standard issue Arabpop. Most likely this certified kitsch masterpiece will never leave the Arab world. But as its plastic orchestral tunes revel in their own fabulosity, they demonstrate how bourgeois gentility can coexist with real energy and passion. A [LF]

The Blind Boys of Alabama: I'll Find a Way (Masterworks)
In the same year that Vampire Weekend released a surprisingly God-focused album, these gospel greats have released the year's greatest indie-folk album. With Justin Vernon handling the production and a guest list that ranges from Shara Worden to Merrill Garbus, this is a gorgeous album that never lets you forget that it's gospel, even when the collaborators suggest otherwise. Vernon's production proves that he's capable of creating good music and, although it may be too mellow to top 2001's Spirit of the Century (I can't see any of these tracks becoming the theme song to one of television's greatest seasons), it's beautiful nonetheless. A MINUS [MR]

Cedric Burnside Project: Hear Me When I Say (self-released)
Little Walter articulated a fundamental with his hit "Blues with a Feeling," since blues most certainly is a feeling, or perhaps, a proper sound. Tone, texture and atmosphere were the essence of a couple very late-period Delta bluesmen, both deceased, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. They acquired an indie-hipster fanbase that made too much of their realness, their rawness, their downhome awe-then-ti-cee while ignoring limitations of songwriting, vocals, and repetitious performances. Even so, the tone, texture and atmosphere sliced right to the blues center and about half the time, so does the latest from R.L. Burnside's grandson, drummer/songwriter/singer Cedric Burnside, here accompanied by bassist and guitarist Trent Ayers. Burnside's feel for the beats -- blues drumming is perennially slighted -- makes you forget clichd words and non-arrangements on numbers like "Bloodstone," "Tight Tight," and (natch) "Gettin' Funky." And to get them out of the way, the ballads are putrid and will always be skipped. Hear Me When I Say is for blues hounds, yes, but they're the ones who thirst for that feeling most. B PLUS [MM]

Ezra Furman: Day of the Dog (Bar/None)
An already gifted singer-songwriter, this is a huge improvement on last year's The Year of No Returning where the tracks ranged from faux-Dylan to faux-Neil Young. He punches this album up with rhythm & blues piano and horns, though, and much like Low Cut Connie, he shows that early rock and roll sounds aren't still work. After all, punk rock has always thrilled with the freedom of explicitness. When set to crunching guitars and heavy drums, a line like "I wanna destroy something/I wanna destroy myself" might sound like a wannabe Sex Pistols track. Here, it sounds like a song that Jerry Lee Lewis was never allowed to release. Throughout the album, everything from a Bo Diddley rhythm ("At the Bottom of the Ocean") to rockabilly ("Tell Em All to Go to Hell") is used to create a fascinating mood that juxtaposes perfectly with the dark lyrics. With the way he changes it up with each album, I personally can't see wait to see what he goes for next. A MINUS [MR]

Kevin Gates: Stranger Than Fiction (Bread Winners Association)
"My life a movie," Gates raps after being shot at by a friend he may or may not have later killed. His previous mixtape's name, The Luca Brasi Story, lets us conclude, with some relief, the movie isn't Scarface. Like Marshall Mathers (a Luca Brasi title), Gates has character actor technique, and what he lacks in star power he makes up for in commitment to his role. Unlike Em, he never uses his range of voices to avoid implicating himself. Instead, his redneck twang ("Careful") and fake patois ("Tiger") illustrate the multitudes in his interior life -- amidst the bullets and programmed orchestras, he's loyal, introverted, needy. "The worst thing you can give any nigga or bitch is rejection," he says, before denouncing men who crave the attention of other men as hoes. He's working on the border between masculine and feminine codes, dangerous territory for a rapper. Gates isn't worried about sleeping with the fishes. He's worried about ending up as alone as Michael Corleone. A MINUS [BL]

G-Dragon: Coup d'Etat (YG)
Boy band buffs should start with Big Bang's Alive EP, in which G-Dragon, the guy with the abs, and the other three smoldered as consistently as any millennial Max Martin troupe. Aficionados of all things cray might begin with last year's One of a Kind EP, in which GD proved his rap bona fides by bragging about his looks like peak Missy working it. This, his play for global stardom, enlisted enough B-list brand names -- Sky Ferreira! Baauer! -- for a celebrities-in-Seoul reality show pilot. Appropriating American sounds (chief beatmaker Teddy can fake anything from pop dubstep to Blood Orange) and language (guap guap guap) without scruple, all he got for his efforts was a Complex Magazine digital cover and a U.S. #161 album. He'll never be a trans-Pacific star even after he passes his TOEFL. Off-peak Missy shows up and cuts him, and he lacks the expressive range to become a go-to foreign weirdo like Robyn. But top 40 listeners who realize they deserve better than 2013 Timberlake should try "Crooked," in which he gets over a broken pinky promise by rocking eyeliner and a whole can of hairspray. A MINUS [BL]

Glasser: Interiors (True Panther Sounds)
I shouldn't like anything at all about Cameron Mesirow, who performs under the name Glasser (there's a turn-off right there). On stage she wears a lot of masks and is accompanied by a dance troupe called Body City. She composes her music alone in a room and is about as un-band as you can get (four other people play on her current album, but you'd never know it). I like exactly one verse of her lyrics: "Remember when we went through/That dream when I came to you/And we held each other on a trash pile/And we thought it odd/But we knew it was ours." As for the rest, when they aren't tolerable puzzlements, they belong on that pile. Her father, Jeff Mesirow, is a member of the Blue Man Group ('Nuf said -- but said very archly). Her mother played in an all-kazoo outfit called Kazoontheit before founding Human Sexual Response, an '80s local band I've always wanted to like a lot more than I've been able to. And yet for weeks I compulsively played and replayed her recent second album, Interiors, even when my conscious intention was to slip on something much ruder and earthier. Interiors was produced by Van Rivers of Sweden, who also did the deed for Fever Ray, which may explain the irresistible undertow-flow of the Glasser album. Even the performers who she evokes to me, Bjrk and tUnE-yArDs, are far more committed to the thwack of rhythm and seduced by the hook phrase. In the case of Glasser anyway, the techno pulse can be subtle and rock your bones. Her words and music are as snug and in love with each other as it gets, turned out with enough assurance and certainty that I don't mind never stopping to parse what she's singing. I got over any misgivings about this after I checked out the new release by Juana Molina of Argentina. Although she's more ambient and clearly playful/funny than Glasser, for the last 10 years Molina's antic music mechanisms have swept me away and I can't understand a word. May Glasser beat the odds with my ears for as long. B PLUS [MM]

King DJ: Let Me See You Feel (Bear Funk)
Most Eurotronica aspires toward a midpoint between ironically archaic kitsch and avant-garde ambience, directed at aesthetes who don't care if their music is anonymous as long as it provides that legendary rapture. Kristof Michiels has a more obtrusive sound in mind. Sharpening the edges, making the beats buzz and pulsate and tingle, winding up the rhythms so tightly they detonate on the double, Michiels essays a giant hook monster complete with farting basslines and rubberized synthesizer. Never let it be said that a drum machine can't look discreetly over and give you a sly wink. Or a warm pat on the back. Or a punch in the face. A [LF]

Adam Lane Trio: Absolute Horizon (NoBusiness)
In hindsight, it was no surprise that bassist Adam Lane and saxophonist Darius Jones would work together. They share a common musical language and have similar approaches to modern jazz. Both tend to write solid themes that they use as frameworks for their music, and they seemingly draw inspiration from some of the same sources. For each of them, this has resulted in music that leans avant, for sure, but also swings and grooves. The two have joined forces on record to great effect previously, notably on Jones' brash and swaggering sophomore outing, Big Gurl (Smell My Dream). I say previously, only this was recorded the summer before the February, 2011 session that spawned Big Gurl. With Lane's and Jones' knack for composition in mind, it's perhaps a bit of a surprise that Absolute Horizon is a wholly improvised effort. Yet the trio, with Vijay Anderson joining in on drums, find common ground so effortlessly here, you'd be excused to think these guys had been playing together for a long time or at least wrote out large parts of this before hitting record. On this thrilling album, some of that rough blues, the funk tinged grooves, the post 60s avant jazz and sonic boldness that have been prominent on both Lane's and Jones' other albums meld with probing stretches that straddle skronk, and sweeping atmospherics. Lane alternates assertive bass ostinati with driving runs, Jones' alto cries, honks and soars, while Anderson's loose swing assures propulsion. Thematic fragments and melodic strains intersect at seemingly just the right moments, underpinned by determined grooves. Nowhere is their approach more successful than on the epic "The Great Glass Elevator," which goes from a plaintive cry to a joyous, dancing finale at he drop of a few bass notes from Lane. The knowledge that these pieces were fully improvised, makes such feats seem even more impressive, but the music on Absolute Horizon is powerful and engaging regardless of how it was contrived. A [CM]

Revolutionary Ensemble: Counterparts (Mutable)
This is from 2005 -- the trio's last concert performance, in Genoa two years before violinist Leroy Jenkins's death and four years before bassist Sirone's -- but it was released only this spring, and I swear it's more vital than almost anything else I've heard in 2013. An apt comparison might be the Modern Jazz Quartet, except that the instrumentation is sparser (violin in place of piano and vibes) and what was permissible in the name of either jazz or classical, or in the name of both, had changed drastically by this group's formation in 1972. Though recognizably jazz (Sirone's title opener and Jenkins's "Berlin Ertarhung" are as close to swingers as anything these three ever recorded, and Jenkins's "Rumi Tales" and "Usami" are ballads in more than tempo), this music is post-Webern as well as post-Parker, on the outskirts of microtonality when not forthrightly microtonal. Jenkins was the first violin virtuoso to go free; and he's in top form here, the instrument's noble romanticism always within reach, whether embraced or mocked. On "Fulfillment," the collectively improvised closer, there are stretches where it sounds like he's bowing furiously after detuning his strings or removing them altogether, though more likely he's just rubbing or striking his bow against the instrument's pegbox and C-bouts -- whatever, it's a masterful display of extended techniques. When not propelling things forward with a low rumble or the barest semblance of a bass walk, Sirone is the violinist's keening string twin. And Jerome Cooper is as much a one-man-band here as on his solo-percussion albums, not just supplying color on traps but greatly expanding the palette with bell-like balaphone, chiramia (a Mexican double-reed) and electric-keyboard washes that are never just backdrops; at 16 minutes, his piece "My Birds" is the CD's lengthiest piece but also the most tonally varied and finely developed. Now, if only someone would reissue The People's Republic, the RE's long-lost 1975 A&M studio LP, and finally get around to recording the music from Jenkins's three forgotten theatrical collaborations with librettist Ann T. Greene, even though it would now have to be without him. A [FD]

Sada Bonaire: Sada Bonaire (1982-85, Captured Tracks)
German disco group, Bremen DJ Ralph von Richtoven and singer Stephanie Lange with Claudia Hossfeld in on the group's only single and Dennis Bovell producing. This scrounges up more than an hour of material, the stiff retro beats flecked with exotic spices, spots of oud and saz and hand drums played by Turkish immigrants. Lange's English is a bit stilted, her voice dusky -- reminds me of an earlier German disco group, Silver Convention, only with the carefree 1970s swish driven discreetly underground. A MINUS [TH]

Boz Scaggs: Memphis (429 Records)
Sage geezers know there are really only two ways you can go when you make an all-covers record. Johnny Cash owns the brand on the one kind -- the stoned-parlor-game kind which promises poignant and/or hilarious pairing of familiar artist and unexpected material. The other, much more common kind is the repertoire record, and these live or die on the margins: a surprising and welcome song choice here and there, vocal chops you didn't expect at this late date -- like that. It was a pretty good year for this type, with some choice cuts coming from Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs, Tommy Keene, Aaron Neville, and Randy Travis, with his crushing confessional take on "I'm Always on a Mountain When I Fall." The lovely Memphis clearly falls into the repertoire camp, but with just enough of a difference to make a difference. Of course Boz doesn't cover "Empire State of Mind" but instead he winks at the young folks with his take on "Love on a Two Way Street" and gooses the old folks with his musical relocating of "Pearl of the Quarter." Also, Boz knows that if you are going to cover Al Green it better be with a choice this unobvious ("So Good to Be Here") and that damn right Willy DeVille deserves both of the spots he gets here (with the triumphant lead-off cut "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl" and the DeVille-associated "Cadillac Walk"). Also, he hires Ray Parker, Jr. to play guitar. A MINUS [JM]

Shinee: Dream Girl: The Misconceptions of You (SM Entertainment)
This South Korean boy band has released at least three worthy albums this year, including the spooky sequel Why So Serious? The Misconceptions of Me and the more chart-friendly Everybody, and all are recommended. But this one is utter dynamite, gleefully messing with American commercial convention even while paying tribute. Just what the lyrics are saying I haven't the slightest idea beyond the occasional English catchphrase, nor could I tell you whether they're being marketed to teenage girls or a wider club audience. What I know is that this is some of the most exuberant pop music I've heard all year, its jumpy-chintzy beats and snappy funk guitar highlighting a bouncy dance groove that in turn drives one big fat hooky chorus after another. It peaks early with the title single, which has reached #1 on the Korean charts while barely touching American radio. "Dream Girl" would get dismissed as a "Gangnam Style" ripoff anyway. Only if anything, this one might be even catchier. A MINUS [LF]

Thank Your Lucky Stars: Spinning Out of Orbit (Sounds Deevine '12)
In which an obscurity named Ben Barnes who probably doesn't want the press to know his age or how he brings in the extra-musical funds I'm sure he needs offers an object lesson in how to pull a lot of ass by projecting a sly, dirty sweetness, and in how to write striking songs about pulling a lot of ass by adding tunes to his winsome tales and come-ons. The catchiest of all is called "Suicide Notes as Love Notes," and is preceded by one called "Dr. Nuegurl" that begins "Dr. Nuegurl looks at me and says/That's what you get for fucking a 20-year-old." The finale is called "Happily Ever After," and I hope for the sake of whichever woman he's singing it to that he means it. For his sake too, actually. He is kind of attractive. B PLUS [RC]

Tin Men: Avocado Woo Woo (Threadhead Records)
More than any other American city, New Orleans has bands outsiders never heard of. That's because so many players make a living without having to go on tour (much). The three members of the Tin Men play in about 10 other bands, but they rightly claim to be "America's finest sousaphone, washboard and guitar trio." The sousaphone is Matt Perrine, who also does trombone and sings, the washboard is Chaz "Washboard" Leary, who adds percussion and vocal and the guitar is Alex McMurray, who is also primary singer and songwriter. I discovered their third album, Avocado Woo Woo on a recent visit to the Louisiana Music Factory store and there's a lot going on here, all of it very NOLA. First there's a quality of make-it-up as you go along and anything-goes. Tin Men have done covers of Led Zeppelin, Sun Ra and on Avocado Woo Woo, Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." McMurray's original songs, though, are the prize. He manages to be funny-sarcastic and compassionate at the same time as well as, uh, swampland peculiar. For example, "Jesus Always Gets His Man" is a sort of Savior-as-PI tale. My favorite though, is "If You Can't Make It Here," a lopsided sea shanty that is yet another inside-out tribute to the city of New Orleans. The Tin Men have two previous releases that show both admirable consistency and improvement. A MINUS [MM]

The White Mandingos: The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me (Fat Beats)
Not without flaws; some tactical, as in the clunky raps where Murs defends his Caucasian speech patterns or advocates not listening with your ears, as in the totally unnecessary "No Homo" aside; some strategic, as in the plot line that wavers between invisible and confusing -- after four good to excellent tracks that describe individual women, in ascending order the comically accurate pair of "I Don't Understand"/"My First White Girl," the rocking "Wifey" that mixes Courtney Love and Lil' Kim, and the empathetic street-wise "Black Girl Toof" the narrator ends up on Rap of the Year challenger, "I Like You," with two babies absent clues as to whether the moms are any of the previous four or somebody else. But take two steps back and give the journalist, the hardcore punk veteran and the established rapper some room to move around in the stories and know that at least some of the confusion lies in the real time complications that young life brings. Neither black nor white, but multiple shades of only occasionally pornographic grey, these characters bring solutions to the problems they face head on. By the end, with neither embarrassment nor defensiveness, two lesbian wives, one straight husband, and two kids become a single nuclear family. And once you hear the beyond-Roe v. Wade last line of "I Like You," you will never forget it. Plus, the music hits that punk/rap sweet spot we've wanted for two decades now. Track 8, the one called "My Weapon," is an instrumental joke. Hallelujah! A MINUS [GM]

Contributors

Thanks to all the contributors, listed below.

  • Robert Christgau [RC] will be the Dean of American Rock Critics until the day he dies. (Just kidding.)
  • Francis Davis [FD] is the author of seven books, a former columnist for the Village Voice and former Contributing Editor of The Atlantic, and a 2008 Grammy winner for his liner notes. He conducts an annual Jazz Critics Poll, which will be hosted this year by NPR Music.
  • Lucas Fagen [LF] writes regularly for Hyperallergic Weekend.
  • Tom Hull [TH]: Has written in the Village Voice and Seattle Weekly, but these days just rants about politics and rates music On the Web.
  • Brad Luen [BL] is a lecturer in statistics at Indiana University.
  • Jeffrey Melnick [JM]: Has written often about the history of American popular culture, most recently in his book 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction.
  • Milo Miles [MM]: Milo Miles wants to flog his new blog this year: Miles To Go.
  • Chris Monsen [CM]: Freelance writer and regular contributor to Musikkmagasinet in the Norwegian daily Klassekampen. Blogs at perfectsounds.blogspot.com.
  • Greg Morton [GM]: Record critic, Oregon State University Barometer, decades ago. More recently, retired state gov't middle manager.
  • Matt Rice [MR]: Writes the Matt on Music column for the Eastern Echo.